Friday, March 09, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

Last week, Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' was voted the most popular book in a World Book Day survey. Clearly this disrupts the natural order of things, so the BBC have carefully selected people to explain why, in their opinion, Miss Austen was not in fact a great novelist, satirist and social commentator, but really just a bit dull and silly. But it's something I've noticed before - some of us love her, but others not only don't enjoy her writing, but have a kind of contempt and antipathy for her novels, her choice of subjects, her style and everything about her and her work. Much of it from men, but not all. It's strange. You don't often hear the same comments about many other authors, although of course we all have those we like and dislike.

I think possibly the main force behind all this is anger at Austen's perceived audacity at focusing on women's issues, which are automatically assumed to be inferior to anything men might be doing at the same time, such as fighting a war -- one of the common criticisms is that she didn't write much about the Napoleonic wars which took place during her lifetime, and didn't appear to have much interest in them. How dare she ignore the men, and fail to express the proper reverence for their military adventures?

But as with every war, hundreds of years go by, and few people really care about the outcome, or can remember what it was all about. But the truths about human nature and society in Austen's novels are as relevant today as they were at the time she was writing, her characters and storylines are just as complex and life-like as ever, the pathos is just as moving and the humour is as funny.

And why should she have written about these issues? There are already plenty of books about military and political history. In fact, when reading history or historical novels I often find myself asking the opposite question: where are all the women? What were they doing while all this was happening, how did they fill their time, what issues were important to them, what did they have to say? Why have they been seemingly erased from the story? I think the male-centred story has become so much the norm that anything else seems odd, as if history from a woman's point of view is not 'real history', not about real issues. But it is absolutely as real, unless on some level you believe women don't count as 'real' people. This of course was the reasoning when feminists coined the term 'herstory' -- although misunderstood and mocked, this was actually a tongue-in-cheek attempt to draw attention to the invisibility of women in history.

Like feminism itself, Jane Austen was not anti-men, just not particularly interested in most of them. And that seems to be the biggest possible insult to male vanity.

3 Comments:

Blogger Didi said...

My issue with Austen is that while, yes, she does focus on women, she also focuses on the gentry (or wannabe gentry). There is very little I can relate to her in her books because of the class issues involved.

Maybe I'm strange, but ever since having done some geneaological research and finding out that during that time period, my ancestors were fishmongers and wood cutters in Scotland, I don't have a lot of patience for hearing about upper class issues of that period.

4:36 AM  
Blogger Sofiya said...

I've heard that complaint before about Jane Austen, but you know, I actually think her writing documents profoundly and poignantly how desperate the situation for women of any class was in the 18th and 19th centuries - regardless of social class. For example, she does have women who aren't upper-class (Harriet Smith in _Emma_ springs to mind), whose life revolves around getting married because otherwise there's no way she can stay alive. But life is no different for the Bennet sisters in _Pride and Prejudice_, because although they've had a privileged upbringing in the landed gentry, the property laws of the time mean that they can't inherit the family house and living when their father dies, hence the intense focus on finding husbands. Their situation is no different from Harriet Smith's - find a husband or you'll end up in the poorhouse.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Grace said...

I'm actually writing my dissertation on the "Lizze of The Day" which is how the character of Elizabeth Bennet is represented today in the 20th century. Why did girls look up to her so much then and why is she still so important today? For example, Bridget Jones might not be so involved with money or connections, but niether were they so obsessed with wieght as they were in Jane Austen's time. Some things have changed but the over-riding example of an "independent woman" still rings today. This makes Austen's book (and indeed, MANY of her books) so important.

8:19 AM  

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